I had the honor to be invited to participate in the plenary session of this year's conference of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic on "Crossroads Missouri." Other scholars spoke on looking East, West and South from Missouri; I was asked to look North. My remarks are below.
For Americans, the West has been a glittering abstraction, more of a mystical concept than a place. And this mystification has two very powerful rationales. First, it obscures both the horrendous costs of western expansion to the people who lived there, as well as the real costs of its rewards: the maldistribution of land and riches that turned land speculators into a class of superrich. Second, the West provided a dialectical escape hatch—a spurious one, as it turned out—to evade the inexorable conflict of North and South. Jefferson invoked this tone of mysticism repeatedly, most memorably in his First Inaugural Address, describing America as “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Jefferson is demonstrating impeccable logic: only a limitless West can reconcile the contradiction of North and South. But it is equally clear that the West that solves this equation is an imaginary number.
Both Northerners and Southerners projected their dreams for the future on the West, and these collided catastrophically over the question of Missouri statehood. The traditional historiography, following the Jeffersonian narrative, painted the movement to restrict slavery in Missouri as a Federalist gambit to regain sectional political power. More recent scholars have seen it as a sincere and broad-based effort to reclaim the national character and save the West from slavery. But nearly all observers, including myself, have paid only cursory attention to the interests and motivations of the Missourians themselves.
Looking North from Missouri inherently positions Missouri as South. That’s right, isn’t it? As the center of the storm over slavery restriction, it would seem only natural to identify Missouri as a southern state. But I will argue that Missouri is something else entirely, something extremely important to our understanding of America and the function of the west.
What do Missourians in 1820 see when they look north? They consider themselves, with reason, the primary target of a vengeful Universal Yankee Nation. New Englanders, they believe, regard Missouri as a barbarous, malarial, earthquake-ridden tract, infested with wild beasts, wild Indians, and still more savage whites. In Missourian eyes, the North is a solid phalanx determined to bar the territory from statehood, or at best to admit her as a subjugated second class entity.
Missouri is without doubt a slave state, but it is not, I contend, a southern one. Geographically, it extends further north than any other slave state. Slaves make up a smaller percentage of its population than any other slave state except Delaware. Missourians do not view slavery as a culture, but as a tool of economic advancement; precisely what the paternalist Old Southern elite claimed it was not. Missourians have almost as little patience for upper-south breast-beating about the tragedy of slavery as they do for Northern moralizing against it; and they regard South Carolina’s increasingly hysterical demands as quixotically counterproductive.
Missourians did not view slavery restriction as an existential threat. Instead, they saw it as an assault on their sovereignty and liberty. When their slaveholding came under attack by the North, slavery became for the Missouri settlers from the South a kind of emblem of sovereignty, a rallying cry of political independence, in much the same way that Jay Gitlin argues French identity becomes for the creole population. Thus Duff Green’s unintentionally ironic toast to unrestricted admission: “The Union—It is dear to us, but liberty is dearer.”
Here we get close to the crux of how republicanism changes during the course of the 1820s, and the role Missouri plays in the change. In 1820, the idea that the freedom to hold slaves constituted “liberty” at all could still seem like nonsense to a substantial segment of the American public—indeed, nearly the entire politically active Northern electorate. Even after the Missouri Compromise cleared the territory’s path to statehood, many northerners believed they could still have a shot at excluding the state. They wanted to reject Missouri’s draft constitution, which required the legislature to pass laws excluding free blacks and mulattos. Die-hard restrictionists seized on this language as a violation of the privileges and immunities clause of the U.S. Constitution. I suggest to you that it is hard today to put oneself into the mindset of Northern congressmen who were willing to sustain another year of stalemate, of threats of secession and civil war, over the right of their states’ black citizens to travel unmolested through the great state of Missouri.
This second crisis was defused by Henry Clay, who crafted a convoluted and incomprehensible compromise that both sides
were willing to adopt out of sheer exhaustion. It demanded that the Missouri legislature enact a humiliating certification that the restriction clause of its constitution was not in conflict with the privileges and immunities clause of the U.S. Constitution—in other words, that it didn’t mean what it said. In a resolution dripping with sarcasm and disdain, the Missouri legislature adopted the measure, and President Monroe proclaimed Missouri a state on August 10, 1821.
Surprisingly, the Missouri legislature kept their part of the bargain. In 1825, they passed a law against blacks and mulattoes that explicitly did not violate Article II, Section 4. In doing so, they called the North’s bluff. The law only excluded those blacks and mulattoes who could not present a certificate of citizenship from the state in which they resided. Missouri’s lawmakers knew that several northern states, including Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, that cultural colony of the Land of Steady Habits, had equally draconian laws on their books barring blacks. They also knew that other states would balk at providing a formal declaration of black citizenship. This was so for practical political reasons as much as ideological ones: legislators who endorsed black citizenship would target themselves for electoral retribution, and provide a rallying cry for mobilizing the opposition on the basis of the increasingly popular doctrine of white supremacy. Missouri’s 1825 residence law actually made sense of the deliberately obscure language of the Second Missouri Compromise, and made a mockery of Northern pretensions to moral superiority and devotion to the principle of universal equality.
It was at this point, I would argue, the discourse of black citizenship shifted decisively, and became unequivocally a discourse of “race.” Those states that had taken the strongest role in the restriction campaign—New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire—became infamous in the following decades for their violent hostility to blacks. Schools for blacks, Indians, and other students of color were shut down or prevented from opening. The American Colonization Society became the nation’s leading “reform movement.” The aptly-named Judge Luke Lawless declined to prosecute a white mob in this city that burned alive a free black man, asserting that they had been seized by an “electric phrenzy.” And Andrew Jackson’s attorney general, Roger B. Taney, sketched out his racial theory of history and jurisprudence in a memorandum defending the imprisonment of black British seamen on the grounds that Africans had no rights of citizenship anywhere. This was insanity, of course, but it was the inexorable logic of the proslavery nationalism pioneered by Missouri.